It’s easy to hate Becky Something, the hurricane of rock n’ roll destruction at the center of Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell.” Played with ferocious intensity by actress and producer Elisabeth Moss, the star’s third teaming with Perry sees Moss hitting another high note after the pair’s vicious “Queen of Earth,” but it also comes with a timely addiction narrative that she was eager to get right.
Told in a five-act structure and interspersed with flashbacks, “Her Smell” unfolds over nearly a decade as Becky and her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin, worthy matches for Moss) struggle with the price of fame and creative freedom as their band, Something She, rises and falls, mostly due to Becky’s whims.
As the band cycles through bad gigs (three out of five of the film’s acts take place in grimy backstages) and even worse trips, Becky is forced to grapple with the havoc she’s wreaked on everyone around her, made still more frightening by her drug addiction and emotional unease.
It’s familiar territory for Moss and Perry, who previously used 2015’s “Queen of Earth” to stage another incisive view into the bonds between women threatened by mental illness, but “Her Smell” goes even deeper.
Moss remembers her “Queen of Earth” director texting her in 2015 with an idea: to follow “a rock star who was on the outs in her career and was an addict and had a baby, and dealing with that, what that would be like to have that kind of addiction and lifestyle and have a baby.” That’s all she needed, and she encouraged Perry to write so they could set about making it.
First, however, she had to prepare for the role that would be emotionally and physically draining, from her on-stage performances to some high-energy tantrums.
“I watched any music documentary I could get my hands on, honestly,” Moss told IndieWire in a recent interview. “All the usual suspects, ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,’ which I’d already seen but now I’ve seen a million times, ‘Amy,’ the Amy Winehouse documentary. And also things on Marilyn Monroe, like that kind of thing, just to get a grasp of that fame and that addiction. Anything I could find about somebody who was incredibly famous or successful, but also dealing with addiction, was very helpful.”
Some early reactions to the film compared Becky to Courtney Love, but Moss bristles a bit at the need to trade one blonde rocker for another. As she put it, “Why isn’t she Axl Rose?”
Moss also looked beyond well-publicized stories of Hollywood tragedy, opting to spend time with recovering addicts who showed her “things that you can’t get from reading a book or watching a documentary, but things that were very real.”
“I have not, thankfully, dealt with addiction myself personally, but I tried as much as I could to, not just watch documentaries, but actually talk to people who’ve dealt with it and were now sober,” Moss said. “A couple of people that I spoke to, obviously who will remain anonymous, were so open and vulnerable about it. … You actually have to be able to talk about it, and you have to be able to face it.”
The film doesn’t glamorize drugs; instead, it drops the audience into Becky’s story long after she has gone off the rails. “It was very important for me to try to be as accurate and truthful about that as possible,” Moss said. “That’s why we don’t even show a lot of drugs being taken in the movie, because we do not want to glamorize it. We want to show the effects on the people around her, of that addiction.”
For Moss, those effects were the most informative element of the film. “I think that it’s one thing to be crazy and fun, and say crazy shit and talk really fast, but it’s specifically in Act Three, which is at the height of her demise, she’s cruel,” Moss said. “So much of the film deals with not only the person who is going through the addiction, but how it affects everyone in her orbit, her bandmates, her ex-husband, her child, her mother, and affects the people that are connected to them.”
She continued, “When you’re that fucked up and you’ve really lost yourself, you can go places that you would never think that somebody would be able to go.”
“Her Smell” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.